people in white T-shirts covered in decorative bloody bullet holes march down a street holding signs reading "justice for Jonathan Coronel"
Rocío Zamora helped lead protests in 2017 in Vista, California, following the death of her cousin Jonathon Coronel. (Courtesy of Roberto Camacho)

Since the nationwide uprisings following the murder of George Floyd by former Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin in 2020, many police departments have been under more scrutiny  for their misconduct and continued targeting of Black and other communities of color. This past March, San Diego law enforcement agencies adopted a new county-wide protocol purporting to change how they handle investigations and reviews of officer-involved shootings and other deadly use of force incidents in San Diego County. However, advocates have noted the adopted policy reflects a disturbing pattern where the promise of greater transparency and accountability is little more than shallow lip service. 

The newly adopted Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) states that in the event of “all peace officer-involved shootings, use of force incidents resulting in death, and ‘in custody’ related deaths occurring outside of the jail setting,” no police department or law enforcement agencies in San Diego County will investigate their own officers, reversing their previous standard practice. Seventeen county law enforcement agencies signed the memorandum. But while the MOU might sound good on paper, a closer examination reveals considerable weaknesses and loopholes that police departments can easily exploit. Local organizers have been quick to point out that the entities now tasked with addressing reported violations are merely neighboring police departments and the county district attorney’s office, not truly independent investigators. 

Rocío Zamora, a community organizer and former sponsor of state legislation targeting police overreach and militarization and promoting community-based responses, says police accountability organizers and family members of police violence victims don’t see how the memorandum makes any substantial changes because it’s an informal written record of an agreement, not a binding official policy. Furthermore, it expects civilians to trust that the same police who abuse their communities will actually investigate violations and hold other officers accountable.

“The police have already been investigating each other and finding themselves not guilty of murder,” Zamora said. “This memorandum is essentially having them do the same thing, which is having cops investigate other cops, which is already happening across all police agencies.”

Effective change requires more than lip service

For Zamora, the pain of police violence is an all too close and painful reality. She began advocating for police reform in 2017 after her cousin Jonathon Coronel, an unarmed 24-year-old man, was shot 16 times in a Vista backyard by San Diego sheriff’s deputy Christopher Villanueva. Sheriff deputies had been pursuing Coronel on foot after trying to arrest him on an outstanding warrant. Witnesses say that Coronel took off his shirt to show he was unarmed and was trying to surrender before he was killed. Villanueva was also involved in the fatal shooting of Sergio Weick in 2016 but was ultimately cleared by the San Diego district attorney in both shootings.

Zamora calls the MOU dismissive to victims of police violence, their families, and communities who are demanding that the district attorney’s office prosecute police who indiscriminately kill unarmed civilians and calls for investigations to be handled by independent prosecutors. Organizers have several points of contention with the memorandum, including the fact that the involved agencies will still handle police encounters that don’t involve deaths; in-custody deaths inside San Diego County jails will not fall under the MOU either. Advocates are especially angered by this exclusion, given the county’s abnormally high in-custody death rate. According to a 2019 report from the San Diego Union-Tribune, San Diego has the highest jail mortality rate among California’s five other largest counties—185 incarcerated people have died in San Diego County jails between 2006 and 2020, and in this year alone, nine have already died in San Diego County’s jail system as of May 2022.

The nonbinding nature of the memorandum is a particularly thorny point for advocates. San Diego law enforcement claims that the nonbinding protocols will rebuild trust and foster transparency by having “independent and unbiased investigators” address violations and that the outlined protocol is a “fundamental shift in the way that [police] investigate officer and deputy involved shootings in the county of San Diego.” 

However, advocates say those claims are undercut by the memorandum’s lack of any official requirements or binding rules. It even states that “a party to this MOU may withdraw its agreement and participation,” meaning that police departments can still opt out of the memorandum at any time. Further, there is no cited data to support the assertion that the adopted protocols will increase transparency. In fact, Lt. Ruben Medina of the San Diego County Sheriff admitted that the department was “not aware of other memorandums like this being adopted by other police departments outside of our region” and was “unaware if there was any hard data behind the implementation.” Currently there are no long-term studies available looking at the relationship between neighboring police departments investigating fatal police encounters, an increase in public transparency, and the impact on trust between police and the communities they serve. 

San Diego Sheriff’s Department at 2017 Alfred Olango protest, El Cajon, California. (Courtesy of Roberto Camacho)

While the MOU provides many exemptions and opportunities for law enforcement to sidestep true accountability, organizers say that the memorandum’s most glaring shortcoming is this: when all is said and done, police in San Diego County are still ultimately being investigated by other law enforcement from San Diego. Additionally, the San Diego DA’s office will also continue to review all incidents, and a DA-appointed investigator will be dispatched to the scene of all shootings to gather information for ongoing investigations. 

Organizers like Zamora are outraged that those who’ve been responsible for so much harm and distrust across San Diego County communities are now co-opting the language and rhetoric of those most directly impacted by police violence to create an illusion of police reform. Their distrust and skepticism around the so-called “groundbreaking” nature of the MOU has been well-earned, rooted in a long history of the San Diego County police and District Attorney’s office’s continued dismissal and opposition to community demands for more transparency and accountability. 

Roadblocks to police accountability are common

For Tasha Williamson, president of Exhaling Injustice, a nonprofit that works with people experiencing injustice in schools, in the workplace, and with local police, her doubts are based on her own experiences trying to implement police accountability legislation. The idea that a non-binding memorandum will succeed when San Diego County law enforcement are already resisting compliance with existing legislation that call for transparency, the release of body-worn camera footage, and public access to police records seems far-fetched at best. 

“I don’t trust local law enforcement will investigate police officers-involved shootings without biases because local law enforcement have a culture of protecting their own,” Williams said. “The police culture is tragically still upholding the ‘Thin Blue Line’ that silences so many officers and leaves whistleblowers unsafe and alone.” 

The MOU’s rhetoric rings especially hollow for organizers like Zamora and Williamson since more concrete plans to ensure independent investigations and police accountability have already been proposed at both the state and local level. In 2021, California Attorney General Rob Bonta announced that under Assembly Bill 1506, the California Department of Justice would handle investigating police shootings of unarmed people. Additionally the AG’s office would decide whether to charge police officers, taking that power away from local district attorney’s offices. However, the provisions under Assembly Bill 1506 won’t go into effect until July 2023. 

The city of San Diego has also tried to take its own steps to increase transparency and hold police accountable. In 2020, San Diego voters approved Measure B, which promised to create the Commission on Police Practices, an independent board tasked with investigating allegations of police officer misconduct and in-custody deaths and empowered to recommend policy overhauls. San Diego’s oversight board previously lacked investigatory powers and could only review the San Diego Police Department (SDPD)’s own Internal Affairs investigations. 

However, that was 19 months ago—the San Diego’s City Council is still in the process of approving an official ordinance under Measure B. The City Council will also have to meet and confer with the SDPD and Police Officers Association so they can weigh in on the ordinance before it will hold a final vote for approval. Advocates say this requirement will result in even more key policies being struck from an already watered-down version of the measure. 

Tasha Williamson speaking at Earl McNeil protest in Chula Vista, California. (Courtesy of Roberto Camacho.)

Williamson believes that San Diego law enforcement have intentionally stymied the measure’s approval process, creating a faux vacuum in which shallow, non-binding policy proposals like the MOU can be spun as more palatable to a general public desperate for any form of law enforcement transparency. Williams says that this level of obstruction demonstrates how the police lack any ability to “build trust with the community, respect the voters, and be transparent.” 

Law enforcement in San Diego continues to deny the effectiveness of the community-approved alternatives laid out in Measure B, such as giving City Council the authority to choose commission members and empowering the commission to conduct investigations, subpoena witnesses and documents related to deaths resulting from police interactions, and impose discipline following investigations into complaints of misconduct made against police officers. The San Diego Sheriff’s Department told Prism that law enforcement is “the only entity trained in investigating criminal incidents” and that civilian-driven initiatives “could jeopardize the ability to prosecute wrongdoing or hold individuals accountable if the evidence points to a crime.”

Zamora is also frustrated by the slow and halting implementation of these alternative initiatives that stand a better chance of making investigations into police abuses more transparent and holding law enforcement accountable for the harm they cause. The fact that initial support for these initiatives seems to wane without constant public demand tells communities that officials only care about making improvements when people are watching, not because they believe they’re needed.

“The city took proactive steps with Measure B in 2020 only because of mass public demonstrations,” Zamora said. “However, the community should not have to mobilize and pressure the city to implement a much needed common sense initiative that can save lives.”

The illusion of reform and its influence on local elections

Many police accountability advocates believe that San Diego law enforcement is simply using the MOU as a PR campaign strategy. The memorandum’s announcement in the lead-up to the June primary elections has raised eyebrows, further underscored by the presence of San Diego County undersheriff Kelly Martinez, a key leader in creating the MOU, in the race to be San Diego’s next sheriff. Advocates find the timing to be extremely suspect and point to a prioritization of a candidate’s political power and appeal rather than creating a workable system of police accountability.

“Candidates want new votes, and they prey on people’s emotions,” said Maria Hoyt, aunt of police victim Weick. “We’ve all had these losses, so we’re desperate to have somebody listen to us, and they seize on that, promising that they’re going to get accountability.”

The San Diego County Sheriff’s Department denies this claim. When asked to comment on concerns from the public regarding the intentions and timing of the MOU’s announcement, Lt. Medina insisted that the MOU’s protocol had been under development since 2020 and stated that “the protocol is not a political stunt or intended to help any candidate.” 

San Diego communities have been over-policed for decades and are understandably skeptical that law enforcement initiatives like the MOU are genuine efforts to increase transparency and accountability. Local organizers and advocates remain firm in their assertion that superficial alterations under the guise of police reform will inevitably lead to more abuse and preventable tragedies from law enforcement violence targeting over-policed communities. Those whose lives have been touched by police brutality need comprehensive public safety and police accountability that’s measured not in empty rhetoric, but in concrete steps and policies backed by data, leadership from impacted communities, and public involvement. Officials need to question the assumption that the answer to public safety rests solely in law enforcement and consider how civilian-based initiatives can better meet public needs. Zamora stresses how the safest communities are the ones that have the most resources, not the most cops. 

“Public safety is ensuring that the public has their most immediate needs met. It is preventative, compassionate, and humane, not reactive, criminalizing, nor violent,” Zamora said. “The public has a right to say how our tax dollars should be invested, and the city has a responsibility to listen.”

Roberto Camacho is a Chicano freelance multimedia journalist from San Diego, California. His reporting typically focuses on criminal justice reform, immigration, Chicano/Latino issues, hip-hop culture,...